In Kashrut competition could force Orthodoxy to change, Professor Adam S. Ferziger posits that “Emerging competitors to kosher food supervision monopolies in Israel and the United States present an economic threat that could bring about fundamental changes in contemporary Orthodox Judaism in each of these centers of Jewish life”.
Professor Ferziger proceeds to explain that the challenges posed respectively by the Tzohar kosher certification program to that of the Israeli Chief Rabbinate, and by Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld and Maharat (female rabbi) Ruth Friedman/Congregation Ohev Sholom — The National Synagogue to mainstream Orthodox kosher certification agencies, “may offer fresh promise to those grasping for effective means to revolutionize contemporary Orthodox Judaism — and a warning bell to those who vigilantly defend it against innovation.”
Professor Ferziger extrapolates from the battle against Chassidism 250 years ago, in which Chassidic shechitah (slaughter) was opposed but later came to be recognized, so long as it did not adversely impact the economies of the established non-Chassidic communities of Eastern Europe; this paved the way for general acceptance of Chassidism as a legitimate movement in Orthodoxy, according to historian Chone Shmeruk. Although this point is one of contention, with other historians arguing that the common threat of the Haskalah movement to the entirety of European Orthodoxy was the primary factor for the amelioration of militant opposition to Chassidism, and others arguing that it was the overt moderation of Chassidism as a result of mainstream rabbinic opposition that led to a noticeable lessening of the friction, let’s assume that the truth lies with the position of Shmeruk (and Ferziger). Nonetheless, this proves little when it comes to the contemporary cases at hand of kosher certification.
Firstly, even should Tzohar certification grow exponentially and become a real competitor of Chief Rabbinate certification, it will not yield changes to Orthodoxy. Currently, a large assortment of private kosher certification agencies operate in the Israeli marketplace, offering supervision at a Mehadrin (stricter) level, in contrast with “Rabbanut stam” (conventional Chief Rabbinate) level, with which many are not satisfied. The issue of public versus private kosher certification has not really served to shape Orthodoxy up to now, and there is little reason that the impact of Tzohar certification would be any different as it relates to the larger identity of Orthodoxy.
Ohev Sholom’s certification is even less of a factor, as this certification is available only to establishments that are deemed by Ohev Sholom’s clergy to not require heavy supervision: the certification is free, and it is provided by volunteers rather than by professional kosher supervisors. This is why Ohev Sholom’s certification extends to vegan and vegetarian restaurants only; all other foodservice establishments, which represent virtually the entire kosher dining industry, are outside of the purview of this free/voluntary supervisors certification program. (I am not vouching for or stating anything against the actual quality of this certification. That is another issue…)
Secondly, and more importantly, is that establishing and maintaining kosher certification is no indication of legitimized religious identity. Kosher certification in the modern era is by and large a private, free-market endeavor. Should Tzohar certification seriously take off, no religious message will have been sent. The only message that will emerge is that many proprietors, who anyway never wanted much to do with the Chief Rabbinate, have finally legally obtained alternative “stam-level” kosher certification; this does nothing to validate other religious paths within Orthodoxy. Professor Ferziger’s contention, drawn from the history of opposition to Chassidism, that “the threat to the financial stability of the establishment paved the way for one of the most important spiritual revolutions of the past three centuries to gain mainstream validity” surely does not pertain to the present case, which is not one of spiritual revolution, or of spiritual anything in a meaningful sense.
So too, Professor Ferziger’s argument that the Ohev Sholom certification represents “the appointment of a women (sic) as the head of a local American supervision initiative as the harbinger of broader acceptance of women as Orthodox religious leaders” is not accurate. The fact that Ohev Sholom has a female clergy member who co-heads the congregation’s kosher certification program portends nothing about broader acceptance of female clergy within Orthodoxy. If anything, it makes matters worse, as it provides one further reason for mainstream Orthodox organizations not to accept the Ohev Sholom kosher initiative.
Legitimate comparisons drawn from history can be enriching and enlightening, but this case does not qualify.